The Black Sea: Energy Bridge

By Olyana Kindybaliuk

Energy safety in the Black Sea region: development trends, integration trajectories, hemispheres of attraction and confrontation


From the view of spatial imperative, dynamics of the process, developing within the “borders” of the Black Sea region, which has traditionally been an integral entity of the Big Eurasia, predetermines the outlines of institutionalization of modern geopolitical architecture within its lands. In the essence, the launched institutionalization process mainly tests on strength two main elements: quality of self-identification of the region within general European area, as well as its geopolitical attachment to the common system of geo-spatial arrays.


The issue of military-political presence of NATO and the US forces in the Black Sea region, as well as energy-resources part of the processes, the main content of which is focused on reformatting of general directions of transport communication, perfectly illustrates the core of developing processes. From the point of view of energy index the case is about geopolitical significance of the region regarding hydro-carbon potential, trends of its development on the lines – production, transportation of energy recourses, existing and possible trajectories of integration (including pipeline alliances), and, as a result, appearance of new hemispheres of attraction and confrontation between actors, talking about new exporting pipelines. In this respect geopolitical future of the region shall significantly depend from foreign policy course of the Black Sea states.


Geopolitical potential of the Black Sea region, located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, is mainly determined by the fact that important trans-continental communication corridors lie across it. By this, competition of the Black Sea region grounds on prospect estimations of the Caspian region oil and gas scopes. And here it’s noteworthy that the states of the Black Sea evaluate noticeable growth of the scopes of Caspian gas production as serious and promising factor of assurance of their energy security. According to available information in 2010 gas production in Azerbaijan reached 27 billion cubic meters, by 2020 it can be twice higher. 


Attachment of the Black Sea region to the Caspian one greatly uncovers the significance of geopolitical area, which is a corridor through which Russia gains the possibility to enhance its influence within Near East, and the USA  - the area of fulfillment of vitally important interests. In this context it’s important to note the line of Barack Obama, who made clear during the Summit in Miami in February 2012, that “satisfaction of the US demand in energy resources ,mainly depends from world events – such as disturbances in Near East” [1]. 


And here we should underline that the European Union itself observes the Black Sea and the region in general as a “bridge” connecting Europe and Caspian region, reach with hydrocarbons. The region also is important for the European Union with that it assures for the Union control over key transportation ways, pipelines [2]. 


At this background more expressed is economic significance of the region as a transporting foothold – availability of alternative ways of energy carriers transportation and transporting corridors, connecting Europe and Asia.


Regarding this aspect, the Black Sea states act in the role of energy “bridge” to deliver Caspian hydrocarbons to Europe. To our mind exactly the node Pre-Caspian region – Black Sea region is turning into the frame of new international relations, which are in the stage of formation, reserving a possibility of turn the two region into a separate geopolitical area.


Another important moment, underlining hydrocarbon significance of the region, should be considered the fact that the Black Sea possesses sufficient stocks of hydrogen, sulfur, oil. Their correct use can be mainly connected with real possibility to overcome energy crises, which the states of the Black Sea region can face.


The issue of geopolitical configuration of forces in the Black Sea region, is greatly connected with the trend of foreign powers influencing on the processes, happening within its borders and out of their lines, and with the establishment of new exporting pipelines by-passing Russia in order to minimize its place and role in the region. And this is for purpose as according to industry data, Russia holds the place of the world leader in the issue of explored stocks of natural gas. 


In this context it’s justified to talk about configuration of forces, interested in presence in “between-seas”. Which in the essence, uncovers the potential of Eurasian projection area. Mainly the case is about influence of foreign forces, i.e. forces which are not the element of institutionalization of the considered area: the USA, interested in strengthening of its position in the region, the EU, NATO. 


From this point of view, a famous American political analyst Ira Strause, analyzing the situation in the region in late 90-s of XX century reasonably notes that “presence of Western forces within its borders shall be testing for strength their power for a long time” [3]. 


Within the established situation for the USA it’s principally significant not to allow turning of the Union into a rival geopolitical force. Despite that the EU consumes 16% of world energy recourse, and their own energy stocks are exhausted or are pretty limited, the USA has definite worries about it. Thus, if earlier it was usual to observe the EU from the view of economic competitor, then now the kind of perception is not completely full and doesn’t illustrate the real situation. Adoption of the “Eastern Partnership” initiative in real time mode has allowed treating the EU as efficient geopolitical strategist, which gradually performs foreign political course to enhance its positions in the region. At that this region acquires great importance for European geopolitical system, as due to its geographic location, it assures direct access to strategic energy resources, in which European countries are interested. 


It is imagined that as Europe deals with the issue of diversification of energy carriers, the role of the Black Sea region as a transit way shall be increasing. In this context we should note a quite balanced foreign political course of the EU towards the region. Thus, once segmented initiatives of the Union were changed with a long-term policy, like adoption by the Union in January 2011 of the Black Sea strategy, in which the Black Sea is announced “partial European internal sea and geographically mainly European” [4]. 


To our mind, observing the EU as a rival, the USA, using energy vulnerability of the region and the Union in general, intends to establish effective mechanism, able eventually to exert pressure. In due time the USA had worried about strengthening of positions of Russia in the world as one of the main suppliers of hydrocarbons to Europe and tried to counteract.


First of all, the USA to our mind, shall insist on non-allowance of preservation of the system of conclusion of bilateral gas treaties for the states of Europe with Moscow. According to the USA Europe should act univocally in the issue of interrelations on gas with Russia. However, this shall be difficult to achieve as in terms of economic crisis European countries shall be glad to conclude a treaty with Russia only to obtain urgent for economy gas under the price a bit lower than market one. Another step of the USA on the way of restraint of its geopolitical rival in the region we can observe an attempt to lobby shelf gas production to have a possibility eventually to reduce the position of Russia as the main supplier of hydrocarbons to “between-seas”. Let’s note that at the moment Russia supplies to European market about 150 bln cubic meters of gas annually. 


Demonstrative in this respect can be considered the visit of the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Sophia in February 2012, who purposefully having pointed on total dependence of the country from Russian energy carriers, advised to refuse of Russian gas completely and produce shale gas [5]. As an intermediate result of such step we should note the fact that in Bulgaria big joint Russian-Bulgarian projects started are slipping and by this damaging the country’s economy. And although consequently many states of Europe officially declared their refusal of exploration of shale gas, still the trend to influence the position of forces in the region from foreign powers remains unprecedently topical and sufficient.


Let’s note that according to the information of International Energy Agency, the stocks of shale gas in Europe comprise 16 trillion cubic meters. However, in this respect appropriate is the question where does such precise data on gas potentials of Europe come from, when even most preliminary forecasts can’t give approximate estimations and this is related with the specificity of this gas production. In the essence by producing shale gas it’s not known how much gas can be obtained by development of wells  and how long gas can be extracted from them. Thus for example it’s well-known that shale wells, drilled in the USA in 2003 already lose their efficiency. Moreover, to produce shale gas, free lands are urgent, which Europe doesn’t really possess. More clarity is introduced by lack of study of the risk level by its production, as well as the fact that until now safe technologies on its extraction haven’t yet been worked out. 


Actually shale gas production at the moment is economically unjustified. And the fact that it is developed mainly in north of the USA once again proves our views on that in this area of the USA there is deficit of traditional gas fields.


Analysis of the US presence in the Black Sea region demonstrates concern of the country not only with the issue of energy safety and possibility of energy resources transit through it, but with another the same significant issue of American foreign policy, in particular – maintenance of the status of influential player in all key geographic points of the planet, including the Black Sea.


Realities of current situation are that the country attempts to gain access to energy resources using its presence in the region. This conditions enhancement of interest of the country to the shelf of the Black Sea, here also come willing extension of economic cooperation with the Black Sea states. Briefly, the country strives to assure its control over the oil and gas fields. One of the steps in this direction can be considered occurrence of American company ExxonMobil in the Ukrainian part of the Black Sea shelf. The case is about development of Skif oil and gas space, the stocks of the field are estimated of 200-250 bln cubic meters of gas. Total investments into its development should comprise 10-12 bln USD. As per the forecasts, the scope of gas production shall reach the level 305 bln cubic meters annually. 


Crystallization of the sense of American presence in the region focuses on the situation on “Big Near East”, which can’t be observed without considering the events happening within its territory. In this scheme the “Big Black Sea Region” plays the role of a rod between main part of Europe and ‘Big Near East”. It results into that if West manages to gain total control over the Black Sea region, it shall strengthen southern border of NATO.


NATO’s role in the region is quite significant. In due time recent conflict between Georgia and Russia proved increase of confrontation in the Black Sea region. To our mind the intention of the Alliance shall define itself in this part of geopolitical area only by enhancement of confrontation in the region, increasing this way regional tension, and turning the region into the “block sea’.


Within considered issue, focus lies on its active involvement into energy field, expressed through the intention to present in the basin of the Caspian Sea and the region of South Caucasus as defense for main exporting pipelines, under construction at the moment. They include also planned Trans-Anatolia gas pipeline system (TANAP), anticipating transportation of gas to Europe along the territory of Turkey. Let’s note that working pipeline projects, such as Baku-Ceyhan and Baku-Supsa, granted with the status of transnational, are also in the focus of NATO as if to assure their safe operation.


In this respect it’s quite appropriate to doubt the judgment of Russian researcher Mamonov M.V., who considers that “occurrence of new powerful player in regional policy shouldn’t lead automatically to increase of regional conflictness potential” [6]. 


In this respect it’s reasonably to conclude, that geopolitical reality of the region is that it is in the focus of observed changes, which  have recently become permanent, leaves the basics of silent diplomacy outside of frames, anticipating as at least absence of visible tension. Existing scheme of power triad the USA – EU – NATO involved the “between-seas” into expressed confrontation of powers and pressure from West, introducing noticeable corrections into interrelations between the Black Sea states. Paradigmatic geopolitical content reveals new significance of the Black Sea region, when the case is about future of energy security. We’ll venture to notice that due to existing reality regularity of established system of interrelations is of that energy flows, crossing the region go in East-West direction, and from West to East financial flows return. At this background clear is actual attachment and dependence of West from energy supplies from East. 


It’s the significance of the region regarding hydrocarbons is defined by its role as transport foothold, i.e. availability of alternative energy carriers and ways of their delivery, as well as transport corridors connecting Europe and Asia. In this respect growing markets of countries, located in the region attract more attention of the European Union.


At the moment, the region is in focus of extension of geography of energy carriers supply ways, new exporting pipelines are being constructed. In other words, in the region forms a new architecture of pipelines not free from competition, and pretty on the opposite. And this is connected with that recently the struggle of the Black Sea states for the control over the ways of delivery of hydrocarbons to foreign energy markets has significantly intensified. The region itself represents specific teratogenic structure as it includes the activity of exporting states, importing states as well as transiting states. Therefore, also the model of developing relations shall carry various-vector character. In the essence, establishing geography of pipeline ways demonstrates, as per smart remark of Vadim Tarlinski, geopolitical pipeline competition in the region in the beginning of XXI century [7]. 


In this context let’s add that almost all the states of the Black Sea region have started developing oil and gas fields of the Black Sea. For example, Romania and Turkey intend to accomplish quite ambitious projects on oil and gas production at its shelf. In this sense demonstrative also is the fact that Ankara in quite short terms managed to reach other Black Sea states,  having started exploration of Turkish part the Black Sea shelf. Sophia actively attracts foreign companies to produce hydrocarbon raw materials in Bulgarian sector of the sea. And here we should remind that coastal Black Sea part of Bulgaria in comparison with of other Black Sea states is poor for energy resources concentration. Even Georgia, experiencing sufficient economic difficulties, grants great attention to hydrocarbon resources, located in the area of the Black Sea shelf. Russia also reveals its interest in development of shelf’s fields.


Mainly the readiness of the number of the Black Sea states to participate in developing hydrocarbon projects, including also those competing with each other, helps to define new quality of political course of these states, and exactly their active trend. In this context we should note that the intention of Turkey simultaneously to participate in two competing energy projects “South Stream” and Nabucco. The last one provides deliveries of natural gas from Caspian basin to Europe by-passing Russia. By this, having gained extended support of the USA, this energy project in due time with special efforts declared about itself. Schematically natural gas should have been transported to European countries through Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Austria. However, this “should have”, which sends the energy project into the past, has declared about itself quite recently, having pointed at new name Nabucco West, which means, pointed at reduction of flow capacity and length of the pipeline. 


Getting back to the issue of new pipeline architecture, forming in the Black Sea region, let’s note that the case is about alternative sources and ways of obtaining energy carriers, having even the slightest chances for accomplishment. In the essence the intentions to model its system of supplies mainly covers the issue of formation by the Black Sea states of the hemispheres of attraction and confrontation in the region.


In this context noteworthy is the initiated by Romania project AGRI (Azerbaijan–Georgia–Romania Interconnector) on supplies of condensed gas from Caspian region by-passing Russia. Let’s note that Georgia considers this project as alternative to Nabucco West. It’s anticipated that gas shall be transported from Azerbaijan to the Black Sea cost of Georgia. There in its turn gas shall be condensed and with sea tankers forwarded to Romanian port Constanta.  Then fuel shall be turned into gas and from Romania it shall be delivered to Hungary and further to West Europe.


In fact, as we see the intentions of the Black Sea states to create new exporting pipelines, by this enhancing their positions in the region, are often impracticable. In this context it’s important to touch upon the issue of modeling by the Black Sea states of their integrational alliances with claim on energy component. At the example of GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) we see that the trend of the country to develop its pipeline scenario – the transportation way of energy carriers, when political ambitions prevail over economic feasibility is not always possible. Energy project “White Stream” is a vivid example. Suggested energy project, the main idea of which is diversification of supplies of natural gas to Europe and Ukraine to reduce their dependence from Russia still remains to be virtual.


Anyway, today’s pipeline configuration of forces in the Black Sea region, being unbiased trend of the region’s development, touches upon not only individual local issues, but conceptual ones connected with its future. The Black Sea factor in policy of the Black Sea countries, as well as out-of-region actors and organizations (NATO) assist formation of tensed geopolitical environment, which a priori underlines significance of the region.


In this context accomplishment of the “South Stream” project greatly allows to understand the core of foreign policy emotional nervousness of out-of-region states. Geopolitical context of the planned pipeline together with functioning “North Stream” creates common trans-European network of suppliers, transiting states and consumers of energy carriers. Let’s remind that November 15th, 2012 final investment decision was adopted on accomplishment of the project with Bulgaria.


Thus, without exaggeration we can conclude, that the issue of assurance of energy security of the Black Sea region, developing in the situation of competition and confrontation, greatly reveals the core of re-structuring of the area itself.